Author (or Editor): Farrell, Warren, Ph. D.

Title: American Studies

Fiction? Fiction   

Publisher:  Houghton-Mifflin; Penguin 

Date: 1994; 1996

ISBN:  ISBN 0-395-68992-9 hardbound 0-140-25090-5 paper

Series Name:

Physical description: hardbound; paper

Relevance to doaskdotell: Psychological polarity and gender roles;
”losing evrything


            This is the first novel by Mark Merlis, and it won the 1995 Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for first fiction. It aspires to present about a century of evolution of American social values. But An American History X, for an aggressive Ed Norton, it is not.

            This first person novel reads a bit like a personal account, which in turn seems like a frame to present social observation from the point of view of an older character, to reach way back into time. Some literary agents don't particularly approve of this technique. It seems to lack drama or rooting interest. At times, the writing seems a bit artsy, like it intended to show up at a Sundance Film Festival. Yet, on a certain level, it works in presenting the dilemma of self-direction and psychological independence for many aging gay men (myself included).

            The basic situation is this: the protagonist, 62 year old Reeve, lies in a hospital bed after having been attacked by a hustler he had brought home for sex. A straight hunk, recovering from a different injury, occupies the other bed. Reeve faces adaptive problems, such as eviction from his apartment and the winding down of a nothing career. His life seems to be coming to nothing, a pianissimo ending. Was that because he didn't have anybody else to be accountable to, the "family values" paradigm.

            Not exactly. For years he had enjoyed a "relationship" of sorts with an older professor, Tom Slater. And it is really through Tom Slater's story, backing into the 19th Century, that a lot of history is told.

            Perhaps the most important incident is Slater's being called up by his school for suspicion of "being a Communist." Tom, a true psychological feminine, can't lie, so he pleads the Fifth. (He could have denied everything and the matter would have been dropped, and he knew it. But for him, Marxism was a bit of an issue, promising a phantom world of perfect justice with no need for narcissistic homosexuality.) Eventually he loses everything (although he has already given up a fortune to keep his "secret" of his love for young men), and shoots himself. His bookish interests and virtual life-path were all he had. Otherwise, nobody cared. Even his father, with a series of letters in the 1920's, tried to warn him about the rootlessness of his life.

            And so Reeve may wind up himself, although he recovers a bit of his youthful memory, having sex (pretty explicitly described) with the "straight hunk" (ah, there are no straight men!) in the next bed, to enjoy the tenderness the next day when the hunk helps him back into bed. And that, as far as plot, if pretty much all that happens, besides his hunting for another apartment from his hospital bed.

            The eviction letter, in fact, is quite well done. Would a 62-year-old really get evicted from a mid-rise apartment building around Dupont Circle in Washington for the noise made by a trick? (Twice in one apartment in Dallas a security guard contacted me about loud classical music, Schubert and Schoenberg). Well, people who bring home tricks perhaps to present a hazard to other tenants. And would somebody really evicted for a messy apartment? (I'd be in trouble.) But all those books and newspapers attract the roaches, as well as present a possible fire hazard. Perhaps a tenant quietly runs a home-based business in violation of zoning laws. Perhaps marijuana is found in his apartment during a HUD inspection. Interesting questions. These things can really happen.

            As I found with a somewhat similarly spirited non-fiction book, Paul Monet's Becoming a Man, this book needed more organization, to give the reader a sense of bearing. The twelve chapters should have titles, and there should be a Table of Contents. Sometimes, the jumping back and forth in time seemed artificial, although that's the way we experience our own fondest memories and dreams.



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